Appendicitis for Christmas.
That was even worse than a lump of coal. A lot worse.
“Ce n’est pas possible,” Colin protested, hand to his right side.
But yes, it was possible. It was probable. According to Monsieur Le Docteur, it was certainement. And if it wasn’t appendicitis, what the heck was making him so sick? Because he was sick. He had done his best to talk himself out of it, but he was feverish, nauseous, and the pain that had started out in his belly had had moved to his side and was steadily getting worse.
“I’m flying home for Christmas tomorrow,” Colin said. “Can you just give me something for the pain, and I’ll see a doctor in the States?”
Yeeeah. No. It didn’t work that way. In fact, what was going to happen was Colin was going to be prepped for surgery. Tout de suite.
“I have to make a phone call,” Colin said, trying not to show his mounting panic.
* * * * *
It took two tries to locate Thomas, who was in
working a protection detail for an actress
mostly famous for playing the love interest of dudes whose real costars were
the souped-up cars they drove. New
have to phone you back.” Thomas was regretful but brisk. He did not like
personal calls when he was working, and Colin knew better. And as miserable as
Colin felt, his face warmed with embarrassment because it was a point of pride
with him that he was the first and only one of Thomas’s lovers who got it, who understood about Thomas’s
job. Completely. Totally. Col
But this was an emergency.
“Thomas, I’m not going to make Christmas. You’ve got to let my grandfather know.”
And Thomas who rarely raised his voice and never swore said, “Damn it, Colin. You can’t do this. You cannot do this to that old man. You can’t just change your mind.”
“I’m not! I mean, I am, but it’s not my choice--”
But Thomas wasn’t listening. He said quietly, fiercely, “Do you really not understand what you’re doing? You can’t make promises and then break them.”
“I’m not. I’m--”
“Just because you’re not in the mood or it’s inconvenient or whatever the hell the excuse is going to be.”
The hell. Thomas was so angry so fast. It had to be because he had been expecting Colin to back out. And it was true that Colin was nervous and uncertain about going home again. He was homesick, but he was equally determined that this visit not turn into some kind of surrender, a retreat from all he had achieved since his move to France twelve weeks earlier. He had given his word. He had no intention of going back on it. It hurt that Thomas thought he would.
Well, they hadn’t known each other long. No. That wasn’t true. But they had only been together for a month--much of which had, in fact, been spent apart. They were still learning each other. And apparently what Thomas had so far learned led him to believe Colin was the kind of man who chickened out from a difficult situation and broke his promises.
Maybe because Thomas still thought Colin was a boy, not a man.
“What am I supposed to tell Mason?” Thomas was asking. “What excuse am I supposed to come up with?”
The ready anger was not the worst part, but it still rattled Colin. He was sick, scared and now in the middle of an argument he hadn’t seen coming. He had been expecting, seeking, sympathy, concern, reassurance. In the face of Thomas’s disapproval he was ashamed of his weakness.
“Tell him I’m sick. It’s true.”
Thomas made a sound of disgust. “If you’re that sick, you better see a doctor. And then you can make your excuses to Mason. I don’t have time for this.” He clicked off.
Colin slowly replaced the receiver.
* * * * *
He opened his eyes to artificial gloom and a medicinal smell. A hospital room. In the dull light he could make out a tall, motionless figure sitting beside the bed.
Thomas. Recognition should have brought relief, happiness, but something had happened between himself and Thomas. The thought of Thomas was a weight on his heart. The sight of him…
Thomas, gray-faced and weary, asked quietly, “How do you feel?”
Colin closed his eyes. Thomas’s large, capable hand covered his, and he didn’t have the strength to move away.
He took slow and uneasy stock. He felt cold and still queasy, but the pain in his side was gone. Or was different anyway. He knew he’d had the surgery. He remembered…well, not a lot. Not about the surgery. He remembered Thomas hanging up on him. He remembered the things Thomas had said. The removal of his appendix seemed trivial compared to the other things he had lost.
It was weird how you could yearn for someone you never wanted to see again.
Thomas was saying nothing, but there was strength and warmth in his touch. He was communicating, but Colin did not want to hear it.
* * * * *
He was released on Christmas Eve into the protective custody of his grandfather, who had flown into
the previous evening. Thomas was there too, of course. Paris
Not the Christmas he had planned, let alone the Christmas he had wanted. But there would be other Christmases. Colin, still feeling shaky and weak, tried to stay stoic in the face of Mason’s unconcealed anxiety.
“Really, I’m okay now,” he must have said a dozen times before they even made it back to his little flat was above the boulangerie. “This would have happened either way.”
“But at home you wouldn’t have been alone.” His grandfather, as fragile as bundle of dried twigs, insisted on helping Colin up the narrow staircase--and Thomas followed close on their heels, ready to head off what must look like the imminent plummet to their deaths.
But they made it safely to the flat, where it turned out Santa and his elves had been very busy. The rooms were fragrant with cooking smells: herb roasted turkey and baking, and very warm--Colin’s heater must have been cranked to maximum for hours on end to achieve that summery temperature. The small kitchen table was piled with delightful wrapped parcels of food and gourmet goodies. Bottles of wine and cheese and nuts and…just so much stuff. Buche de Noel -- a butter cream frosted Yule log on a decorative white platter--and a small roasted turkey swaddled in tinfoil, sitting in an old-fashioned roasting pan. Where had they come up with a roasted turkey at such short notice?
There was a little Charlie Brown-sized Christmas tree too, sitting in front of the window that looked out over the gray slate roofs and rain-shiny chestnut trees. There were many--too many--red, green and silver gaily wrapped packages surrounding that tiny tree.
This was Mason’s work, of course, aided and abetted by Thomas, but Colin felt only resignation. His grandfather should not have done all this, and Thomas should not have allowed it, but he understood that the gifts, all of it, were motivated by love. His grandfather was trying to make amends, ironically by doing all the things that had made Colin feel he must put some space between them in the first place.
But…he loved the old man, and seeing how frightened he still was at what he perceived to be Colin’s close call, Colin did his best to reassure and comfort. After all, had he made it back to the States as planned, it would have gone pretty much the same way. So he faked hunger for food he had no appetite for and delight in presents that made him feel overwhelmed and cornered.
Thomas knew. Thomas knew how Colin really felt about this. Thomas knew Colin so well--and yet he didn’t know him at all. Why did that hurt so much? But it did. And every time Colin looked at Thomas--usually to find Thomas watching him with a serious, hard-to interpret expression--Colin had to look away. He didn’t know what to do about Thomas, didn’t feel strong enough to sort through his troubled feelings. And Thomas knew that too because he stayed very much in the background, hadn’t kissed Colin, didn’t attempt to touch him except to offer unobtrusive and impersonal help with getting in and out of taxis and climbing stairs.
Colin was grateful for Thomas’s understanding--and it made his heart ache.
After their small but sumptuous feast, his grandfather walked around the tiny apartment studying Colin’s paintings. Colin was braced to hear any number of concerns and criticisms. The right teachers, the right training might make the necessary difference. Or…
was a dangerous place these days, and Colin spent too much time wandering back
alleys and lonely streets sketching the encroaching shadows. Paris
The words he dreaded didn’t come.
When Mason said quietly, “This stay has been good for you, Colin. Good for your painting,” it felt like a huge concession. A corner had been turned, a milestone had been passed.
It almost made up for the fact that things were probably over with Thomas.
At last Mason said it was time for him to leave. Thomas said he would see Mason back to his hotel, helping him on with his coat.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, my boy,” Mason said, hugging Colin very tight.
“See you then,” Colin said. He felt Thomas’s gaze and looked his way.
Thomas said, “I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Colin said--and even now it wasn’t easy, “I think I’m just going to go to bed. I’m pretty tired.”
Thomas eyed him thoughtfully. “All right.”
He hadn’t misunderstood, hadn’t missed what Colin was actually saying. He accepted it without argument. Colin wasn’t sure if he was genuinely glad about that or not.
It felt like days later, though it was only a little before when Colin woke to the sound of knocking at his door. He sat up and snapped on the light.
He knew who it was. Had been expecting this, had in fact been dreaming of the coming confrontation. An awful dream where he and Thomas said awful things to each other.
But dream or reality, it had to be faced. And now was as good as any time. Colin untangled himself from the nest of blankets and pillows, made his way barefoot across the wooden floor.
Thomas had a key but he always knocked, always gave Colin plenty of warning. It irritated Colin a little, but mostly because he knew in his heart that Thomas was right. If he woke to find someone in his room he would experience a moment of paralyzing panic before he recognized, realized that it was only Thomas.
Thomas, who made a point of not interfering with Colin’s wandering the streets of
night, was absolutely determined to protect him from a few preventable seconds
of terror. So…the minor annoyance of being dragged out of bed to admit his
lover, which was never really an annoyance. Not even tonight when he was
dreading what they would say to each other. Paris
He unlocked the door, opened it, and yes, no surprises. Thomas. Tall, ruggedly handsome in jeans and brown leather jacket, unsmiling
“I know you’re tired,
and I know you’re not feeling well, so we don’t have to talk long. But we do
have to talk,” Thomas said. Col
Colin hung onto the door frame. He really didn’t feel up to this. He didn’t know what he felt, beyond hurt and confusion and disappointment. He knew he didn’t want to deal with it now. Knew he was liable to say things he didn’t mean.
“I know you’re hurt. I know you’re angry.”
Colin sighed and turned away from the door. Thomas entered the apartment, closing and locking the door. The heat was fading, and Colin was too cold and in too much pain to try and sit at the table. He went into the bedroom, climbed into bed and braced against the pillows and brass headboard, pulled the blankets up around his shoulders.
Thomas did not remove his jacket. He sat down on the foot of the bed. This silent respecting of the new boundaries eased some of Colin’s tension.
“I’m sorry, Col. I misread the situation and I misjudged you.”
Colin nodded. That was pretty much it. Thomas zeroing in on the heart of the matter so fast it was disconcerting. He had yet to work through what he was feeling and Thomas was already summarizing.
“I didn’t listen and I didn’t give you a chance to explain.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I apologize. Sincerely. I’m very sorry.”
And he was. That was obvious. There were new lines in his face and his eyes were shadowy with regret and guilt. He felt bad. Clearly.
So…all better now?
Colin didn’t feel all better. He appreciated the apology. But he still felt…chilled and sick.
Thomas was waiting for him to say something, and he didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t even that he was still mad. The apology defused a lot of the anger. But there was still this big painful emptiness.
He said, “I don’t know. I don’t understand--”
Thomas waited. That was one thing about Thomas. He really did listen. He listened to what you said. He listened to what you didn’t say. That’s part of why he was so good at his job.
Colin’s mouth was unexpectedly dry. The words sticking in his throat. “What feels wrong to me is that you think that I would do that. That I would give my word and then back out.”
Thomas seemed to think his reply over. “I knew you were worried and nervous about the trip. I did think you might come up with a reason not to go.”
“To back out. To break my word.”
Thomas’s gaze was troubled. “Yes.”
Colin gave a short, humorless laugh. “And that’s why I think this is…not easily fixed. Because you don’t know me. The person you think I am is someone neither of us would like.”
“No. That’s not true.”
“Yes.” Colin’s sense of the injustice of it all swept him up again. “You think that I could break my promises to you. You think I could hurt my grandfather like that.” He stopped. There was probably more, but that felt insurmountable enough.
Thomas didn’t rush to reassure him either. He continued to regard Colin with that dark, troubled gaze. His face was grave.
“You don’t trust me,” Colin said. That was the full realization hitting him. That was why this hurt so much. Why it felt they probably weren’t going to be able to get past it.
“I do trust you,” Thomas said. But it wasn’t very convincing.
Colin shook his head and stared out the window. Through the glass he could see the moon caught in a net of colored Christmas lights strung through the neighboring chestnut trees. A very old ornament handed down through the generations.
“I do trust you,” Thomas repeated. “But I’m also a realist.”
Colin turned his gaze back to Thomas. “Which means you don’t trust me.”
“No, Colin. It means that I know everyone has their vulnerabilities, their breaking point. And I thought this trip might be difficult for you.”
“Difficult enough that I would break my word and let you and my grandfather down.” Colin’s resentment, his sense of having been wronged was hardening.
Thomas admitted, “Maybe. That’s what this job does, I guess.”
Colin shivered, pulled the blankets tighter around his shoulders.
“All right,” Thomas said with sudden crispness. “But I’ll tell you what. I did think you might panic, but not for one second did I consider that a…a deal breaker.”
That surprised Colin. He hadn’t considered this angle. And his surprise must have showed because Thomas said with renewed certainty. “I underestimated you. I judged you unfairly. But it did not for one second change my feelings for you, change my certainty that together we have something worth fighting for.” He added, “That’s the other side of being a realist.”
He smiled with a wry diffidence Colin had only seen once before: the morning Thomas had missed his plane, stayed behind to tell Colin he might be falling in love.
Thomas said, “I know you could screw up because I screw up sometimes. Like the day you phoned.”
And it should work both ways. Right? Couldn’t Colin accept that Thomas might screw up occasionally?
“But that’s a big one,” Colin protested, still feeling aggrieved, wounded. “If you think I’m someone who could let you down like that--”
Thomas moved--the bedsprings squeaked and pinged--closed the distance, wrapped his arms around Colin. Colin told himself he wasn’t sure he wanted to be held, wasn’t sure they had reached that stage of negotiation. But the fact was, it felt better with Thomas’s arms around him, even if they were going to keep arguing, it felt better to argue like this in the warmth and safety of Thomas’s arms. He could be angry and still find refuge here, that was Thomas’s unspoken promise.
Thomas said against his ear, “Sometimes the age difference frightens me. Sometimes I think you don’t see me like I really am. A middle-aged guy with a job that takes up too much time and too much energy that should rightfully be yours.”
“I don’t think that.”
“And I worry that one day you’re going to wake up and notice that you got the short end of the stick.”
“I don’t think it all the time.”
“You shouldn’t ever think it.”
“But it could be a little bit of why maybe I was too quick to believe you were backing out on a commitment. Because I wasn’t sure if it was a commitment I had maybe pushed you into making.”
They weren’t just talking about the trip back to the States. Colin said, “I wasn’t backing out. I’m never backing out. I love you, Thomas.” He raised his head, found Thomas’s glinting gaze and repeated, “I love you.”
From across the frosty, chilly distance floated the silvery chime of Christmas bells.